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Posts Tagged ‘Truman Capote’

By Teri Blair



Clutter Memorial Monument, photo © 2010 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.





The town of Holcomb has been on my front burner for years. It began when I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, built momentum when I read In Cold Blood, and culminated with a road trip to Kansas to see the spot on the map that writer Truman Capote made famous. I was pulled into the 1959 story with everyone else—the lonely farmhouse, the two ex-cons who drove through the night to a place they’d never been, the murdered family. Truman’s stellar writing made me want to see it all—the Clutter Farm, the courthouse where the death sentence was pronounced, and the hotel where Truman stayed while he wrote.

The first time I drove the 850 miles I was a just a sightseer, a tourist. It was a one-time thing. I couldn’t have predicted the story would keep going, that months later I would find some long-lost relatives in Holcomb who had known the Clutters, that I would interview some of the same people Capote had, that I would make the long trip through the relentless wind several times.



Windmills of Kansas, grain elevator towering over Garden City
(seven miles from Holcomb and the site of the trial), Chinese elms
leading to the Clutter farmhouse, and the Clutter farmhouse.
Photos © 2010 by Teri Blair, all rights reserved.





Fifty years ago Perry Smith and Richard Hickock drove across Kansas on a false tip that there was a rich farmer who had thousands of dollars hidden in a safe. Their botched robbery turned into carnage. The two were captured six weeks later, tried, convicted, and hung at a federal penitentiary. The crime was horrific, but everyone agrees, the story would have faded in time—if not for Capote. Though life would have been forever altered in Finney County, it would have returned to normal.

But it didn’t work that way. Truman wrote his book, it became a best seller, and he was catapulted to the top of the literary world. Then Hollywood got on board with a string of successful movies based on the book. Because of one author, there has been a constant, unending stream of people like me in Holcomb. Curious. Prying. Asking. Looking. Bringing it up. Over and over and over. When I interviewed Duane West a few years ago (the local lawyer who got the murderers convicted), he asked why people like me don’t think of something else to do. He’s been pestered for so many interviews since 1959 that he won’t talk to anyone unless they make a donation to the Boy Scouts of Finney County.




         

                             

Finney County Courthouse and stairs Capote climbed during the trial to
the courtroom. Photos © 2010 by Teri Blair, all rights reserved.





In September, Holcomb dedicated a monument to the Clutters. Its intent is to honor the four people who died: Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon. They were upstanding, involved members of their community. That’s what the monument focuses on, not what garnished the attention: their brutal deaths described in the book In Cold Blood. It was a solid community step to take the Clutters back from Truman and Hollywood and bring them home to their people.

The last time I was in Kansas, I went to the annual Ground Hog Supper held at the Methodist Church. It was the Clutters’ church, the one where the four-family funeral was held in 1959. I sat in the same Fellowship Hall where the mourners would have eaten their post-burial lunch. The room was packed. Just like in 1959. And the people were the same as then—farmers, insurance salesmen, clerks. I liked them. They reminded me of people I grew up around. And I didn’t want them to be bothered with gawkers like me any longer.



Park sign leading to Clutter Memorial Monument,
photo © 2010 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.





Was Truman right or wrong to tell their story? I loved the book and what it did for American writing. But was it worth the price Holcomb had to pay? Though I won’t pass judgment, one thing is clear: a good writer’s work leaves results. When Capote left New York to set up shop in Kansas, he pulled us in. The pull has lasted five decades. His book kept a wound open. And Truman suffered, too. Researching and publishing In Cold Blood punctuated his dramatic descent into alcoholism.

So for me, for this one writer, I’ve decided to set it down. If I go back to Holcomb someday to visit my cousins, I’ll enjoy the Arkansas River that flows through the town, and I’ll buy a Cherry Limeade because I can’t get them where I live. But that’s it. No more questions.

I’ll just let the people be. It’s time.



Wheatlands Hotel, where Truman Capote stayed,
photo © 2010 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.






About Teri Blair: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey fondly and frequently writes. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the latest post on that group and Teri’s piece titled Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group for a step-by-step on how to start your own.)

Teri has written many posts on red Ravine, but this current piece is a follow-up and closure of sorts to her first guest post here, Continue Under All Circumstances, which she wrote on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas.

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By Teri Blair
 
I thought this directive, this encouragement, this heed applied only when things were going badly. You know, just keep going even though the chips are down on all fronts – when you have nothing to write in your notebook but garbage, when you just keep getting rejection letters from publishers, when you feel like the biggest fraud in the world trying to be a writer.
 
Now, I see it applies to the flip-side – continue under all circumstances even when things are going well. Because I see (in a string of days that are going well), that I am just as apt to toss myself away when abundance is coming into my writing life as when the horizon is bleak. It’s like the discovery a few years ago that I feel the same if I have 50 cents or 500 dollars in my wallet. I have the same sensation either way…always broke, never enough money. It has nothing to do with any dollar reality. Just the pounding voices in my head.
 
I’m in Holcomb, Kansas. I’ve returned for the 2nd time in six months to the setting of Truman Capote’s 1965 masterpiece, In Cold Blood. The first time I came out of curiosity, the 2nd from a series of serendipitous events that led me to discover forgotten and lost and distant cousins. Cousins who were raised here. Ones who knew the Clutter Family whose murder brought Truman Capote and Harper Lee back here to Kansas again and again to research their book.
 
And this time, instead of looking at the town with the eyes of an observer passing through, I am being introduced to people, one after another, who lived through the tragedy of ’59. Any one of them is a story. But there are too many. And it makes me want to hide under blankets or run away and definitely not continue under all circumstances.
 
But I will. Only because I was taught how. I will feel the bottom of my feet when I walk to feel grounded. I will sit still and not talk whenever I can. I will listen. Listen deeply. And I’ll try hard to remember that I don’t have to know anything. Be dumb. Just show up without the answers to any of my questions and listen.
 
To Janice, who sat next to Nancy Clutter in band. And her telling me about Nancy’s new clarinet that played like a dream, and how she was a little jealous that Nancy was going to get to go to college with that new clarinet.
 
To Sandy, who worked in the court room during the murder trial. And because she was so photogenic, she was asked to play Harper Lee in the first In Cold Blood movie.
 
To Marlene, who said she doesn’t want to keep reliving the tragedy over and over again.
 
To Eddie, who described to me Truman Capote’s pecking order of friends here, and what it did to the people when some were invited to the Black-and-White ball in New York City and others weren’t.
 
To Wanda, who looks very old and tired, who kept telling me she was far too young to remember any of the Clutters, but kept producing one yearbook after another from the library shelves for me to look at from Holcomb High School.
 
Continue today. That’s all. Just keep arriving in the next minute.
 
 

Continue Under All Circumstances is a writing practice written from the road while researching a story in Holcomb, Kansas.

About writing, Teri says:  I began writing in a Quonset hut on a farm in Minnesota, dragging hay bales around a blue window to create a little haven where no one could find me…alone with paper and pencil. I was often bundled up in several layers in desperately cold weather. I guess on some level I was really serious, even back then. I wrote in journals and diaries faithfully, always finding refuge in the written word. Instead of sitting up and taking notice of these tendencies, I spent years investing time in things I didn’t care about, like taking piano lessons and jogging. It finally became too tiring to fight what I really want to do. So on most days, I’ve stopped saying writing is for someone else, and I let myself do what I love.
 
Upcoming pieces this spring will appear in
Nursing Spectrum, Teachers of Vision, Liguorian, Senior Perspective, and Mushing.
 

 

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